Ben Domenech wrote eloquently in 2011 in a piece that moved me. He’s a young guy, but he gets it. He wrote about the Reagan revolution: where it is today and why it is not over. His brilliant rebuttal to Stephen Hayward’s feeble and dispirited capitulation to liberals ought to be read widely and reread often. We need the inspiration and owe great thanks to Ben for it.
I had a very personal reaction to it, though, that I thought I should share it.
Unlike most Heartlanders, I did not start my professional life as a policy wonk. I wish I had, but instead I was just an English major doomed to teach high schoolers unless I could find something else to do. (I have nothing against teaching but do believe it should be deferred until one actually knows something. Which one does not, in my opinion, upon college graduation.)
Through good friends who urged me on, I found my way into journalism and, from there, into political reporting. This aspect of journalism was then more about the horse race of winners and losers than it was about policy. I knew the issues in vague outline, but they did not engage me very much back then (though they do now) in my heart and soul. In an odd way, that was – in 1980 – an advantage.
That was the year in which I first saw Ronald Reagan.
And here is the prism through which I saw him.
I was then the political editor of the Suburban Trib, which was part of the Chicago Tribune. My job was covering national and state politics from a suburban point-of-view. I was also a third-year law student in the night program at Loyola in Chicago, with one more year to go.
Back then, all of us twenty-somethings at the Suburban Trib aspired to get “downtown.” We were blocked, though. There had been four newspapers in Chicago, but two had folded (the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Today). The Suburban Trib at first had been the farm team for the “Big” Trib – which is why I was thrilled to get hired there – but thereafter, Tribune officials decided they wanted us to hold their suburban circulation, so they imposed a ban on moving any of us downtown.
So there we were.
Some left – Bill Geist went to the New York Times and from there to CBS. Others went to worthy newspapers – the Detroit News, Long Island Newsday – or the wire services, or off to write books. I went to law school, thinking I would use the degree to write about legal issues for newspapers on the East Coast. Or maybe even practice law. I really liked learning law, so I was undecided.
So there I was in early 1980, one year from law school graduation and getting, to my shock, nearly straight A’s, and poised to make the decision of a lifetime.
It’s hard to explain what it felt back then. My newspaper job involved driving to meetings and interviews from the north to the south end of the Chicago suburban area – about 100 miles in a straight line. There were gas lines everywhere, so I filled up my midget car’s gas tank every time I had a chance.
The president – Jimmy Carter – told us to wear sweaters. He told us we had a moral and spiritual crisis. There are threats, he said. He did not say so, exactly, but it was clear that he doubted we could meet these threats. Read the “malaise” speech here. It is uncanny how similar it sounds to our current times.
Back then, I didn’t want to be suffering malaise. I was soon to be holding my hard-won night school law degree and had hopes for an exciting future. I had been weaned by my (Democratic, union, South Side of Chicago) parents to believe in exactly that: the American dream – defer gratification, work hard, save your money, go to school, and the future was limitless. Sort of Republican or maybe even Libertarian, come to think about it.
And I did think about it. And that’s what I was thinking about, sometime in 1980, when I went on the local press bus to Morton High School in west suburban Cicero, Illinois, to see Ronald Reagan, then just one of many candidates for the Republican nomination for president of the United States.
Local reporters like me were allowed on the bus with the boys on the bus from D.C., who scorned us. But still – there we were. The Secret Service ushered us into a roped-off area in the high school gymnasium. The gym was packed with people to the rafters. It was very dark, but then suddenly, the spotlights lit up Ron and Nancy.
They should have been invisible, but for the spotlight. But what I remember so vividly was the energy that suddenly infused the entire gymnasium. I don’t have my notes from his speech, but what I remember thinking was that he said exactly what I thought – we are the greatest people in the history of the world. We thank God and God is good and he is directing us. Success is in our future. There is hope. It will be difficult, but we can do it.
Anyway, I can’t recreate it exactly. But that is what I heard him say.
And it is what we now need.
Later in 1980, I was assigned to attend and report on the Republican and Democratic political conventions.
Off I went in the summer of 1980 to the Republican convention in Detroit. And later that summer to the Democratic convention in New York City.
There were memorable moments at each convention. I was there. With my future in my hand. Trying to decide what to do.
But let me tell you what I remember best from each gathering.
The Republican convention was exuberant. Attendants were excited. Enthusiastic. The future was exciting and unlimited. Everyone partied and hugged one another. Big Jim Thompson showed up in a limousine with a trunkful of beer. It was symbolic, somehow. Times looked good. Celebration was going to happen.
The Democratic convention was grim. Those attending seemed depressed. Maybe it was because we were in New York City, but everything seemed difficult. We were all on deadline, so it seemed great that there were sandwiches supplied free to the press. But they were made from beef slices slimed with a vile green iridescent film. It seemed symbolic, somehow, of the whole experience.
So here is what I’m saying.
I did not want to hear in 1980 about what a bad people we are. I did not believe it then. I do not believe it now.
Nor does Ben Domenech. He quoted Reagan in his 2011 column.
“They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong. There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.”
On this 4th of July, I vow to do just that. God bless the U.S.A.